[Horror History] Exotic Monsters (The 1930’s)


This is Part 3 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Once again, we begin with Dracula.

When Bela Lugosi was interviewed about his stage performance as the Count, journalists would often ask if he was worried about being typecast in “mystery plays.” After Lugosi starred in Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) entered pre-production at Universal, competing studios began rooting about for similar properties to chase the Dracula dollars and the term “horror film” slipped into general usage.

When the British Film Board instituted a special rating for these “distasteful” items, they labeled them as “H” for “Horrific”–which seems to have sealed the deal insofar as naming the genre went. It wasn’t a linguistic inevitability, though. Terms like “macabre,” “gothic,” “weird,” “terror,” “monster,” and “shudder” were also available. And though Dracula signaled the birth of a cinematic genre, there’s a sense that neither the studio nor the director had their heart in the film. Both were involved with the project because of Lon Chaney. With his death in 1930, it may have even seemed like a contractual obligation to see it through. Universal dilly-dallied with casting choices before resorting, essentially because he was cheap, to Lugosi. It may be that they didn’t go with Conrad Veidt because they didn’t see Dracula as a super-spectacular like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which was then in re-release as a semi-talkie film, or even The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Browning also hardly gave Dracula his best work. Though stunningly designed and photographed by Karl Freund, who had done The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1926), the picture is basic filmmaking, certainly not on par with The Unknown (1927) or other Chaney-Browning films. Some have argued that the simultaneous Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same sets from a translation of the John L. Balderson script is more excitingly directed by George Melford. There’s no denying that Browning’s version is more succinct, however; he tore out redundant pages that Melford faithfully plods through. With the better pacing of the English version, and Lugosi’s iconic performance in a role Carlos Villarias cannot claim to own in the way that the Hungarian did (and does), the English-language Dracula stands strong on its own. Browning’s film also has the definitive fly-eating Renfield played by Dwight Frye, whose cracked laugh is also as imitable as Lugosi’s haunting “I…am…Dracula” accent.

Plus that winning smile

There was some enthusiasm for Dracula on Universal’s side, though. It came from studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., newly promoted by his doting father. But even he didn’t consider how radical the material truly was. To the Laemmles, Dracula was a solid, proven property: a novel everyone knew and a play that was still running. The studio that had made their mark with The Phantom of the Opera and The Cat and the Canary (1927) thought they knew what they were getting into. Dracula was even, technically, a remake: Nosferatu (1922) might have been officially suppressed at the time, but it certainly wasn’t forgotten. Clips of the film turn up in a Universal short called Boo! (1932), so there was likely a print on the lot for easy reference. And F.W. Murnau was well known around town as one of the first Oscar winners for his film Sunrise (1928).

The different between what had come before in Hollywood and Dracula was underlined by the play’s epilogue, in which Dr. Van Helsing (played by Edward Van Sloan in the film) comes out from behind the curtain to assure the audience that “there are such things.” Before, the Phantom was malformed at birth. The Cat was just a secondary heir in a fright mask. Even Chaney’s pointy-fanged vampire in London After Midnight (1927) turned out to be a sleuth playing dress up to catch a killer. But Lugosi’s Dracula was a real-life, honest-to-Bram-Stoker bloodsucking reanimated corpse. Hollywood had been leery of “such things” and practical Yankee reviewers often sneered about their appearance in European films. Browning didn’t much care either way. He remade London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Lugosi in the cloak again, and tried to get away with a Scooby-Doo ending as though he hadn’t founded a whole new cinematic genre with Dracula.

Laemmle Jr. took note of the unexpected box office bonanza of Dracula (reportedly a $700,000 profit on a $340,000 budget), which hit theaters in February 1931. He immediately began to develop Frankenstein, managing to get it out before the end of the year despite a change in both director and star during pre-production. Originally, Robert Florey was set to direct Lugosi as the creature, but Englishman James Whale, whom Laemmle valued as one of Universal’s top assets, was given the pick of all the studio’s properties and chose Mary Shelley’s “man who made a monster.” Lugosi (who, forever after, claimed to have turned down the Monster role rather than being unceremoniously dumped by a Brit who didn’t take him seriously) and Florey were shunted off to make Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), a Poe adaptation that’s also a lightly disguised remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Whale cast his London stage associate Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, bumping out Leslie Howard, and scuppered Lugosi’s future career by selecting Anglo-Indian bit player Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) to wear Jack P. Pierce’s make-up as the Monster.

And he really does wear it well

In the opening credits of Frankenstein, Karloff is billed as “?” His name, not familiar to the public despite decades of playing secondary villains and one-scene psychotics, was not revealed until the “a good cast is worth repeating” closing crawl. If Dracula is a thrown-together piece that somehow works, Frankenstein is the result of considered thought by the director, make-up man (a great deal of the film’s lasting strength is that unbeatable, copyrighted Monster) and cast. The script is even more makeshift than Dracula‘s, with too many irreconcilable ideas thrown in. Quite a lot of fuss is made about the plot point that the hunchback minion Fritz (Dwight Frye again playing a sycophantic lackey) has snatched an “abnormal brain” for use in the Monster’s skull, but this “explanation” for why the experiment turns out badly is at odds with Whale’s (and Shelley’s) depiction of the creature as an innocent who only reacts viciously when abused or neglected and whose worst crime (drowning a little girl) is simply a tragic misunderstanding.

The early stirrings of censoring grumblers (especially in Britain, the spiritual home of Dracula and Frankenstein) did more to excite than depress box office figures. With two proven hits, Universal realized they had a new-made genre on their hands–complete with iconic stars, supporting actors, standing sets, behind-the-camera talent like Whale, Pierce, and Freund, and a shelf load of suitable material–and that their horror monopoly would not last long. Lugosi, though he signed on for a Poverty Row quickie (shot on a Universal lot, ironically), White Zombie (1932), retained some of his Dracula magic in the troubled Murders in the Rue Morgue and would remain, resentfully, the studio’s number-two bet for any horror role. But Whale and Karloff were the treasured pair, and were both cannier and more ambitious than Lugosi in parlaying their breakout success into whole careers. The duo reunited for The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from a J.B. Priestly novel, which summed up the entire genre of pre-Dracula “old dark house” horror comedies. Whale even recreates some of Paul Leni’s compositions from The Cat and the Canary. The gloomy drawing room is filled with clipped, soon-to-be-familiar British players like Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, and Charles Laughton. They sprout sardonic dialogue while Karloff grunts about as the below-stairs brute Morgan, the drunken Welsh butler. Whale was a working class lad who reinvented himself as a West End gentleman, whereas Karloff was the public-educated black sheep of a distinguished diplomatic family who’d oddly served decades as a manual laborer before becoming an actor. Whale disparagingly referred to Karloff as “the truck driver.”

Perhaps sensing that he was being “kept in his place,” Karloff passed on Whale’s offer for The Invisible Man (1933), in which his voice would finally be heard but only on the condition that his face was kept off screen. Claude Rains, another well-spoken Englishman of humble origins, landed the role instead. His silky voice quickly established him as a character star. Meanwhile, Lugosi moaned that if only he had played the Monster he would have gotten all the career breaks which came to Karloff. Karloff, for his part, never insisted that if had played the Invisible Man he would have landed Rains’s stand-out roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1943), and Notorious (1945).

Do you know how many children the Invisible Man has? None, he’s not apparent!

Karloff was at last allowed to talk, revealing an educated lisp, in The Mummy (1932), a swift rewrite of Dracula mingled with She and contemporary tabloid stories about the “Curse of King Tut.” With Karl Freund promoted to director and a streamlined script with little eccentricity, The Mummy can comfortably be called Hollywood’s first conveyor-belt horror film, i.e. commissioned by a studio that knew what they were getting, modeled after what had worked before, and showcasing a star that was both a proven talent and a box office draw. The Mummy is informed by a small whiff of graveyard poetry in the form of another memorable Jack Pierce makeup job and the melancholy tunes of Swan Lake playing over the credits, as in Dracula and many other Universal movies of the time.

By now, the competition was on the rise. Every studio in Hollywood had their onw would-be Dracula or Frankenstein on the starting blocks. Paramount, the most elegant and sophisticated of the major studios, looked to classic novels which nevertheless offered an opportunity for lurid, sexualized violence. First, they greenlit Robert Mamoulian to direct Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), with Fredric March trumping John Barrymore’s silent performance by playing the handsome doctor as a parody of matinee idol Barrymore and the ape-like mister as a shaggy thug in evening dress with a nasty streak of sadistic humor. Paramount’s second-string monster flick was Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton as a flabby, whip-wielding incarnation of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau. An unrecognizable Lugosi hides under face-fur as a beast man added in post-production to beef up the film’s horror status. March won Best Actor at the Oscars that year for his Jekyll/Hyde and his victory started to silence prudes who thought the film was too explicit about the double-man’s relationship with with Soho tart Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls was banned in the U.K. for its vivisection and implied bestiality.

Warner Brothers, who specialized in rattling, contemporary, torn-from-the-headline dramas (even their musicals are realistic) had Michael Curtiz direct a pair of twisted whodunnits in lovely new Technicolor, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). These introduced Lionel Atwill as another British horror face, voice, and leer. Paramount snapped him up for their nasty Murders in the Zoo (1933) but then lost him to Universal. These films also introduced Fay Wray as a leggy beauty, though she’s upstaged by Glenda Farrell’s wisecracking proto-Lois Lane in Wax Museum. The two films mixed disfigured fiends, mad geniuses, “moon murders,” and “synthetic flesh” with snappy reporters doing self-aware gags (“he makes Frankenstein look like a lily”) and complaining about Prohibition. Warner Bros. never really committed to horror, but Curtiz did land Karloff his role in The Walking Dead (1935), which sees gangsters stalked by a vengeful zombie in one of the first body-count movies. The studio also put their contract player Humphrey Bogart in an unlikely “scientific vampire” role for The Return of Dr. X (1939).

Humphrey Bo-gey man?

RKO had their own monster in the works with King Kong (1933), though the giant ape doesn’t seem to be as much an attempt to mimic Dracula and Frankenstein as it does the 1926 film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which had proved that Willis H. O’Brien’s hand-animated prehistoric creatures could carry a picture. While producer-directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper were toiling Kong, they had time to use the same sets and lead actress Fay Wray in a quickie classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Here, Leslie Banks was cast in the Karloff-Atwill-Rains mold as Count Zaroff, a Russian huntsman with perfect Shaftesbury Avenue tones and a distinctive way of holding a cigarette. Zaroff’s passion is stalking “the most dangerous game,” man. The Richard Connell story would be remade often and Zaroff is an early archetype of the sadistic mad genius who would feature in many horror melodramas before mutating into the role model for classic James Bond villains (Christopher Lee’s Man With the Golden Gun in particular has many Zaroff traits). After the awe-inspiring debut of King Kong, RKO rushed out Son of Kong (1933), the genre’s first disappointing sequel. The poor reception led to the studio quitting horror altogether until the 1940’s.

MGM, which liked to think themselves the most prestigious studio on the row, obviously now had to get in on the horror fanfare. Chaney and Browning had worked there through the 1920’s under the aegis of supposed living genius Irving Thalberg. Browning returned to the studio for Freaks (1932) with Chaney replaced by real sideshow oddities. The result is regarded as Browning’s masterpiece, though it is wildly inconsistent in tone. The film was then hastily sold off by the studio to grindhouse exhibitors who touted it as a roadshow shocker alongside Dwain Esper’s astounding Poe-derived Maniac (1934). Since Freaks didn’t work at the time (though it’s fondly looked on as a genre classic now), the studio played it safe by hiring Karloff and adapting a proven property with The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). But once again, MGM vacillated, switching directors and failing to settle on a proper tone. Despite this, Fu Manchu was the film where Karloff really broke out and showed that he could more than a dutiful studio employee, relishing sadistic camp in a manner even Whale wouldn’t dare. Myrna Loy, playing the devil doctor’s daughter, played her character as a sadistic nymphomaniac and puritanical, moralistic studio boss Louis B. Mayer, in a perpetual power struggle with Thalberg, was duly horrified. Browning, though regarded as burn out now, was still welcome on the studio lot. After Mark of the Vampire, he managed one other quirky effort, the grotesque science-fiction tale of miniaturized assassins, The Devil-Doll (1936). Perhaps MGM’s best horror film of the decade, however, was another attempt to fit the Universal template, Mad Love (1935). Freund was hired to direct from a script based on Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac (1920). The story had previously come to screen as a German silent film and the new version starred established second-rank horror players Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, who was well on his way to the first-rank after his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) impressed all the Hollywood executives too scared to greenlight a film about child murder.

Finally, the independent Halperin organization gave Lugosi one of his better roles in White Zombie, drawing on the then-hot topic of Caribbean voodoo. The film introduced the apparatus of wax dolls and walking corpses and exploited the genre’s simultaneous fascination with and denial of ethnic cultures (the implication of the title is that a “Black Zombie” wouldn’t be news). Never a major force, even on Poverty Row, the Halperins managed to produce a semi-sophisticated tale of possession with Supernatural (1933) and a near-unwatchable follow-up, Return of the Zombies (1936). Other quickie outfits were ready to sign Lugosi and Atwill and borrow Universal sets. Majestic produced The Vampire Bat (1933) with Atwill and Fay Wray, along with Condemned to Live (1935). The success of White Zombie inspired Drums o’Voodoo (1934), Black Moon (1934), and Ouanga (1935). If things dried up in Hollywood, there were always jobs abroad. Karloff returned home in triumph for The Ghoul (1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1933), while Lugosi was made welcome in England for The Phantom Ship (1935), one of the first features from newly founded studio Hammer Films, along with The Dark Eyes of London (1939), directed by Edgar Wallace. But if horror had a true home, it was still on the Universal lot.

Nice day for a…white zombie

Laemmle Jr. wanted to spend 1934 teaming up Karloff and Lugosi with another big horror name he didn’t have to pay for: Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat (1934), directed by the ambitious Edgar C. Ulmer, owes more to The Most Dangerous Game than the Poe story that shares its name but nevertheless gives the actors lots of material worth chewing over. Karloff plays a perverted diabolist who lives in a modern castle built over the battlefield where all the men he betrayed in the war were killed. Lugosi is a vengeance-seeking obsessive who plans on skinning Karloff alive for his treason. It worked so well that the gang was back together, with Ulmer replaced by the less artsy Louis Friedlander for The Raven (1935), in which Lugosi’s Poe-obsessed mad plastic surgeon gives Karloff’s gangster a new, hideous face. In this pair of films, the stars are evenly matched, alternating lead villain and vengeful stooge. By The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff was the undisputed lead as a glowing mutant and Lugosi is just along for the name value. Meanwhile, Universal, wary of Whale’s increasing demands, tried to boost other directors to “horror men” status. Stuart Walker handed a couple of gothic Dickens films, getting good mad work from Claude Rains in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), and was given The WereWolf of London (1935), in which Henry Hull subs for Karloff as a botanist infected with lycanthropy by Warner Oland in the Himalayas. As the first talkie werewolf movie, London ended up less as a mainstay and more as a rough draft for a sub-genre that didn’t quite come together until The Wolf Man in 1941.

What Universal really wanted weren’t just follow-ups, but proper sequels. James Whale was given carte blanche along with a dream cast including Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester to make Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is at once a genuine expansion of his original and a deconstructive parody of it. Waspish, sly, charming, pervasive, and emotionally devastating, Bride of Frankenstein shows how far Hollywood had come in only four years; already, the 1931 film, with its lack of music and dull, drawing-room chats, seemed antique. The sequel, meanwhile, as a full score by Franz Waxman, no patience for boring characters (Valerie Hobson barely gets a look-in, though she officially has the title role), and enormous visual sophistication paired with bare-faced, blasphemous cheek. If it had been up to Whale, the horror cycle would have ended with Bride. He certainly had no more to say on the subject. Like Browning, he didn’t really work after the mid-1930’s. Universal, of course, saw things differently. They had Dracula’s Daughter (1936) in production with Gloria Holden in the title role and Lugosi nowhere to be found. The sequel films of the latter half of the decade were brisk, efficient entertainments but most lacked in real chills and gothic charm of the originals.

Interestingly, around the time that the first cycle of sequels dominated the production schedule, the horror film fell out of Hollywood favor. Pressure from British censors and moralists mounted due to the rising tension in Europe. Whispers of war and atrocious Nazi crimes were abundant. This brought about a horror hiatus that was somewhat bizarre given that the voice of Hollywood horror had a distinctly British accent. Much of horror’s subject matter came from British authors and the remarkable Tod Slaughter was in constant employment in tiny studios around London outdoing any depravity Karloff or Lugosi could imagine, particularly in Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936). Meanwhile, Karloff spent the end of the thirties playing a Charlie Chan knock-off Chinese sleuth for the low-grade Monogram studio and Lugosi was on welfare. Yet as the decade came to a close, it seemed the horror express would be back on the rails.

Of course when I think of “horror express” I’m reminded of this terrifying Hey, Arnold! episode

Hailed as “the greatest year for film,” 1939 was certainly the year of super productions. Besides mammoth Southern drama Gone with the Wind and ultimate children’s tale The Wizard of Oz, there were several epic-scale, all-star, A-picture revivals of genres that had fallen to programmer status, notably the Western drama Stagecoach and gangster flick The Roaring Twenties. Horror also made a triumphant return thanks to a successful double-feature re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein that prompted Universal to produce Son of Frankenstein (1939)–inevitably casting Karloff in his final go-around as the Monster and Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his finest screen role. The incisive Basil Rathbone and clipped Lionel Atwill rounded out the principle cast and made up for the absence of dry, British Whale, who was replaced by Rowland V. Lee.

Rathbone also donned the deerstalker that year for the first time to star in Fox’s Hound of the Baskervilles while Paramount polished off an old Universal property and cast Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in a remake of The Cat and the Canary alongside perennial supporting suspects George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard. RKO mounted a lavish version of another silent Universal hit with The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. There was even time within the year for follow-ups: Universal had Lee, Karloff, and Rathbone get together to make historical horror Tower of London, Fox pinched Rathbone back for a macabre duel against Moriarty (Zucco) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and RKO got another Broadway mystery remake in the can with The Gorilla starring the Ritz brothers, Atwill, and Lugosi.

Like the classic monsters themselves, horror was back.

Boris Karloff climbin’ in yo windows in The Ghoul (1933)

Next, Part 4 looks at the looming, animalistic terror of the 1940’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.